The COVID-19 pandemic has put a significant strain on the entire American healthcare system. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is in great need to protect our frontline healthcare workers treating infected Americans, and funding is limited. While in the early months of the pandemic, PPE’s availability was at the forefront of the national conversation – spurring a marginal response from the government and third-party actors – the issue has now been largely disregarded. Today, supply shortages are widely reported yet again, and this pandemic has shed new light on the supply chain that goes into manufacturing medical equipment. In the face of this problem, an unexpected industry arose to support nurses and doctors on the frontlines: the energy and petrochemicals industry.
Before the pandemic, these industries maintained an efficient, extensive supply chain used to produce the feedstock needed to make the same plastic materials that compose frontline protective equipment. Their pipelines deliver energy resources like propane to petrochemical facilities, which then process them into polymers through a method referred to as “cracking.” Raw feedstocks are extracted in places such as Western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale and then delivered to facilities across the Commonwealth to be manufactured and processed. There was even a recent national story about Braskem America employees, for example, who shut themselves in for 28 days to do their part to fulfill the supply chain with the materials needed to manufacture PPE.
Take one piece of equipment: the much talked about N95 mask. The mask is comprised of three different petrochemicals that make up the mask’s nose piece, sheath, and filters. American petrochemical manufacturers produce all three of these various components. Additionally, single-use plastics assist medical professionals in controlling the spread of infection significantly. Some examples include PVC IV bags, syringes, blood bags, aprons, gowns, nasal cannulas, and medical tubing. These are items that cannot be used twice and rely on plastic production for their affordable supply. Other medical equipment is made with plastic, including ventilators, MRI machines, pacemakers, endoscopic probes, anesthetics, etc. All of these devices are in high demand and depend on this industry for production.
Some energy companies have altered their production entirely to make products under increased demand due to the pandemic. Dow employees transformed some facilities to produce hand sanitizer, which was later donated to local health care systems and government agencies. Energy Transfer and Sunoco LP, two of the country’s largest energy companies, recently donated eight pairs of military-grade medical glasses to local first responders that allow them to limit contact with patients significantly. These are just a couple of examples of how the energy industry has positively impacted our healthcare frontlines.
Our country will need to work together to defeat this virus and help restore America’s health. While many think our nation’s energy companies only help us fuel our cars and power our homes, the United States has significantly benefited from their vast energy reserves and the technical know-how to provide the medical supplies we need to stay safe and treat COVID-19 patients. We owe them our thanks.